Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Stem Cell Blowback on the Ice Bucket Challenge

Virulent opposition to research involving human embryonic stem cells is surfacing anew in the wake of the vast attention attracted by the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey wrote on Religion News Service that the objections have “gone viral” on the Internet because the beneficiary of the watery fundraising, the ALS Association, finances research involving human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines.

For those of you who are not tuned into the icy effort, it involves celebrities and others pouring frigid water over themselves and challenging others to do likewise and donate to the ALS Association.  About $16 million has been raised so far and is still growing. Photos, news stories and blogs all chronicle the challenge on the Web.  A search this morning on the term “ice bucket challenge” turned up 57.2 million hits.

Our readers might ask how this involves the $3 billion California stem cell agency. The answer is that hESC research is the primary reason for the existence of the agency. It was created in 2004 by California voters after former President Bush restricted federal funding for research involving hESC.  Ironically Bush has participated in the challenge(see video above).

Bush’s restrictions, since lifted by President Obama, generated major controversy in the scientific community and raised fears that efforts to develop what seemed to be nearly magical therapies would wither and die. Without that concern, voters would have been unlikely to approve the measure, Proposition 71, and campaign contributors would have been unwilling to open their checkbooks.

The stem cell agency, however, has turned away from hESC research. Less than 250 of its 622 awards have gone to that field, according to the agency. Instead the agency is backing adult stem cell research, once an anathema to the organization, along with experiments involving reprogrammed adult stem cells. Leaders in the stem cell field, however, say human embryonic stem cells remain the scientific gold standard. (No figures were immediately available on the dollar value of the hESC awards.)

Continued funding of hESC research is linked to the agency’s search for alternative sources of cash as its current financing winds down. Efforts to develop a fresh stream from public sources will run up against the controversy involving hESC experiments, one of the reasons for the lack of interest by Big Pharma. The hESC opposition could also have an impact on development of private sources of funding who may not want to become embroiled in the flap, which can lead to picketing and public protests involving entities that support hESC research.

Kevin McCormack, senior director for the stem cell agency’s public communications, wrote about the ice bucket fad last week on the agency’s blog. He said it “shows how a little bit of creativity can create so much more interest in a disease, and the people suffering from it, than any amount of well-meaning, more traditional attempts at education.” And he poured a bucket of water over his head.
Nonetheless, the opponents hold their views with great passion and zeal and have little respect for hESC science. Here is what one person said today in a comment posted on the Religion News Service article. The individual was identified only as “jamadan.”
“My father died of ALS 6 years ago. My father was and my family is ‘pro-life’, meaning we believe abortion to be murder and embryonic research akin to Nazi medical testing on dead camp victims. Nothing can make us ‘accept’ abortion or anything that benefits from it. Not even our own lives. I think you’ll find that true for all Christians, who by definition, must be pro-life.” 
For other commentary involving objections to the Ice Bucket Challenge, see here, here and here.

(A footnote: This item marks the first video appearance of former President Bush and Kevin McCormack on this blog.)

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